The Soccer War – Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Soccer War by Ryszard Kapuscinski is a collection by this one-of-a-kind author of his escapades, adventures and experiences in some of the 27 (yes, twenty seven) revolutions slash wars he personally experienced during the 1960s and early 1970s. Ryszard was a Polish journalist with responsibilities at any one time for over 50 countries in Africa and South America, and this book offers his insights and experiences into among others, Patrice Lulumba, the Algeria  of Boumedienne and Ben Bella, barbarous civil war in Nigeria, and the eponymous Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras.

Each chapter in this work deals with events in different countries, over the period mentioned above, and you really get a¬† feel for the incredible range and depth of Ryszard’s experiences, each of which seem really worthy of a book in themselves. In fact, I think this book is really that – a collection of experiences and reportage that he never had time to author into other works. The titular Soccer War is such an example, being a fascinating event, and could easily be a whole book in itself, instead of a single chapter. This was kicked off over a World Cup qualifier between Honduras and El Salvador, for the 1970 World Cup. Now, that’s taking your football seriously! El Salvador were the aggressors here, and in typical Ryszard fashion, he finds his way to the front line of the fighting, literally face to jackboot with the troops. Also as is typical of Ryszard, although this is but a single chapter, he still gets to the heart of the matter here, with his usual razor-sharp insightfulness. The heart in question here being the El Salvadoran Latifundia’s greed and desire for the land of Honduras.

Ryszard was clearly fearless, or maybe not fearless – instead recklessly brave, in the pursuit of his stories or reporting. I don’t say “recklessly” lightly either. Take for example, my favorite chapter or anecdote in this collection – his experiences in Civil War torn Nigeria. Upon hearing of a road in the rebel heartland down which no white-man could return alive, Ryszard’s immediate reaction was that he HAD to go down that road – alone and unarmed of course. How many people would have that sort of reaction, and also the courage to actually act on it? For the few who would react as he did, surely one must wonder if they were sane? Ryszard seems sane, he must have feared for his life, so all that remains is a stubborn bravery, in explaining what he subsequently did, which was to drive down that road as dusk turned to darkness, one hot night.

I won’t ruin the story for you, but I would like to just take an excerpt from it, to whet your appetite for adventure and suspense, assuming you have one, and also as proof of his foolhardy bravery. At one of the burning roadblocks he encountered down the road he chose to travel, he was taken from his car and badly beaten by the UPGA, before being completely doused in kerosene – a precursor to them incinerating him where he stood. As the UPGA chief lectured him, lighter in hand, before he set Ryszard in flames, the chief began to find his own speech amusing (fueled by the heavy hash he was smoking), and this amusement led to general good-feeling among him and his armed men. So much so, that they never flicked the lighter at Ryszard, and with a few more thumps, set him on his way. Now, if that is not a close shave, I don’t know what is. Its also worth mentioning, that was only one of the three armed and burning roadblocks he encountered that night!

As mentioned in other reviews I have written of Ryszard, he is really one of a kind in his practising of “travel reportage”, and this would serve as an excellent introduction to his world for any newcomer, being as it is a collection of short stories/escapades of his. If you are not new to Ryszard, you know what to expect and you will not be disappointed: this book offers a window into many of the most dangerous places in our modern world, and plenty of glimpses into the human soul.

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